The quality of a production’s images rests with the director of photography (DP). The DP has to light the set, decide on the camera positions and ensure the director’s vision is perfectly captured in the footage being filmed. Here I talk to eight leading DPs about the craft of the cinematographer.
Prometheus David 8 viral, 10 Minute Tales, Metro Last Night, Darkroom
Once the location of a shoot is set, I like to get a feel for how the set should be lit. I light the set so it doesn’t detract the viewer from the narrative but complements the actors and allows the director to shoot the scene without the complexities that might hinder or distract from the scene in any way. To this end, I feel it’s important to light the scene as simply as possible, so as not to distract the viewer with a crane move or dolly track that doesn’t need to be there for cinematic punctuation and only leads the viewer away from the storyline. I like to leave establishing the look of the lighting until the technical recce; the moments of discovery on a recce often set the tone to where the lighting will end up. The advances that continue to be made in motion image capture never cease to amaze me. It has become increasingly cost prohibitive to shoot on film on many commercials projects, but many feature films still embrace 35mm negative as well as 70mm film. Even so, films such as Gravity have totally used the advances in digital cinematography to produce excellent results.
The DP’s collaboration between both production and the director’s vision may sometimes lead to friction, but what must never be lost is the collaborative process filmmaking adheres to. This is what leads to a successful production, as well as securing future projects. Diplomacy between all departments must be of utmost importance; the creative ego can be a fickle creature.
Small Island, The Passion, Murphy’s Law, Zen, Killing Time
Working with a director, you have to start by listening. I try to avoid saying too much in the first meetings and try to get a strong sense of the director’s vision. Then I try and build on that vision and expand it visually. What is so exciting about working with directors is they are all different. The art of making films is so vast you have to collaborate, and it is these collaborations that make this job such a pleasure.
As a DP you are key in designing the look and making the visuals work on screen, but you do that with the input of many people, from your crew, the production designer, your gaffer and especially the director. You need a strong vision and you need to be decisive. You also need to be sensitive. Transposing those ideas on to the screen under pressure on the day often demands a shorthand with the director. But having said that, I did some of my best work with a director who I found very hard to understand.
The world has changed dramatically and continues to. I am currently very excited about shooting with older lenses and anamorphics and have just bought a set of Super Baltars that were used on the Godfather and a set of old Cooke S2 Panchros. The new digital sensors are so hard, finding lenses that give you new looks is now a major part of our art. I am just starting a BBC three-part mini series that is contemporary but we want it to have a period feel. So we are using the Cooke S2s.
Fleming, Prisoners of the Sun, Welcome to the Punch, Chalet Girl, Shifty
Making a film is a balancing act, but everyone involved just wants to make a great film. Sometimes people’s views differ on how a great film should be made, particularly in prep. These conversations are absolutely vital to the filmmaking process because in amongst all the viewpoints of these talented and committed people there is the heart of the film you’re all trying to find. Sometimes passions run high in these conversations and listening is a more important talent than speaking. But when you do speak, make sure your argument holds together, rather than just voicing an opinion simply only to have voiced an opinion. Because time is precious and hot air wastes time. Being a DP is a wonderful crossover between the creative and the technical. I always start in the creative form, as I read the script, themes and visual ideas come to me. I mull over the ideas, discuss them with the director, and then later you creatively use your technical knowledge to achieve those things. But technique should never override the ultimate aim of emotionally connecting the audience to the film.
Learn to light sets by travelling loads and look at how light falls everywhere from the mundane to the extraordinary location. Shoot loads of stills. Try and build up a library of stills, films and paintings – you’ll not only learn a lot, you’ll get a sense of the aesthetics that make you happy. You’ll also have a library of images that will help you communicate your ideas.
Silent Witness, Outcasts, Upstairs Downstairs, The Deep, Hustle
Like all art, cinematography is prone to trends. Historically these trends have been heavily influenced by technology. We’ve been influenced by advancements in cameras, film stock sensitivity, lens technology, lighting tools, and of course the DI suite. When film stocks were 100 ASA or less, not so very long ago, cinematographers tended towards hard light, partly in order to obtain an exposure, I suspect, but then this became the fashion. The cameras were way heavier and larger so handheld was largely avoided in favour of the dolly. Jump cut to today, with the advent of high-speed film stocks and such digital cameras as the Alexa, Red and Sony, we now can work comfortably at 800 ASA with smaller, more powerful lamps, lightweight cameras, fast lenses and extraordinary DI equipment.
These changes in our tools brought about a style in cinema and television that, more often than not, has become highly naturalistic, with a great deal of handheld camera work and lighting that often appears found. Interestingly enough, I believe 3D films have inspired a return to a more classical camera style because our eyes cannot cope with fast cuts or much handheld in 3D. These films have also discovered that wider focal lengths often give more depth in 3D where, until recently, the trend had been to use longer, shallower depth-of-field lenses in 2D work. When building the look of a piece, I always follow the lead of the script, the director, the designer, the locations and the instincts of the actors, rather than any trend of the day. However, I feel one shouldn’t work in a vacuum, and, as the DP, you are the guardian of taste throughout the shoot as far as the look goes. That can mean many different things at different times, but it’s good to be informed of trends in cinematography so that no matter if you decide to go with the trend or against it, you are doing it for the right reason: to support and enhance your particular story and characters.
A famous DP once said: “I am a different cinematographer on every film”, which is exactly how I feel. I try to start every project afresh with an open mind about what it will look like as much as about how I will collaborate with the director. Filmmaking is an adventure in relationships as much as it is in story telling – when the key partnerships on set gel there can be extraordinary results that seem to happen quite effortlessly. Each job is different; some directors want to author all the key decisions, choose precisely where the camera goes and the lenses to score the beats of the scene, others prefer a much more collaborative partnership.
Outnumbered, Holby City, Derek, Life’s Too Short, Extras, Phoneshop
It’s difficult to say what skills you need to be a DP. Obviously you have to know how to light and operate a camera but I guess being able to adapt is up there. Things change all the time and being able to go with it and keep to the schedule will win you lots of brownie points. If patience was a skill then you need that too.
I don’t think anyone has ever told me how to light a set. I’m told that I light fast and I’m happy with that. No director likes waiting for a shot to be set up and lit. They’re most happy when the camera is turning over and that’s the way it should be. So the more time I can give the director with the actors on set, the more takes they will be able to do – and quite often the ‘one for the hell of it’ take (because you have the time) is the one they’ll love.
I’ve been very lucky and worked on some superb productions throughout my career, but I guess Extras and Outnumbered are two that stand out. Extras because it was the first show Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant wrote and directed after The Office. There were a number of different camera and lighting styles in each episode along with some amazing Hollywood stars.
Outnumbered I chose because of working with the three children and the whole concept from the writer/directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin about how we approach shooting the series. We would never rehearse a scene, never give the children marks to hit and never stop filming until the kids had stopped talking.
I love grading. It’s the icing on the cake and I’m very passionate about it. It’s the moment where all your hard work on the shoot is realised on the screen. I have a great relationship with two fantastic graders and apart from loving what they can do, they are both fun to spend days in a dark room with. The more a person knows you, the more he or she will know what you like and don’t like. This then speeds up the grade and you’ll have more time to finesse.
Over the last few years I seem to have shot more and more productions with the camera handheld on my shoulder. (Outnumbered, Life’s Too Short, Derek, PhoneShop). It’s interesting that some were shot that way to give it the look of a ‘fly on the wall documentary’ where the camera can happily crash zoom in or whip pan to grab moments. Other productions were covered just as if the camera was on a tripod except that it’s on my shoulder. Although it’s not great for my back, I do like that style, and I do think it is a style. Steady handheld camerawork can add another dimension to a scene.
Doctor Who 2nd unit DP, Atlantis 2nd unit DP, Common Ground
One of the many reasons I think this is the best job in the world is how varied it is, and how many skills (creative, technical, social) you need to learn to be good at it. I spend a lot of time digesting all the technical stuff between projects so that once pre-production starts I can keep my creative goals first and foremost without getting obsessed with the technology.
There are tonnes of people on set looking after all the technical aspects but you’re the only one looking after the overall cinematographic aesthetics of the project. I’m there first and foremost to serve the director and deliver their (or hopefully, our shared) vision of the film. Many times on set it can be a resounding chorus of nos – no to extra time, expense and so on. Often it is solely the director who wants to push for better results. I make sure I’m the first voice in support of them.
People outside the industry often see the DP as essentially working with the camera. The reality is the majority of my job is lighting-orientated and there’s no light source in a scene that wasn’t placed or adjusted to my intent. I’ve been learning for 10 years and every day light surprises me. It’s an extraordinary medium to work with, capable of saying a huge amount with no words and creating an environment for drama to take place. There are tonnes of rules of thumb and tricks I’ve learned but I would say the crucial ones are: always be bold with the look – one big light 50-feet away almost always trumps a bunch of little lights in the set; don’t shy away from the classics – back and side light beats front almost all the time. And finally – the worst thing you can do is get trapped trying to slavishly maintain ‘lighting continuity’ – cuts can hide almost anything, so make sure each shot looks great before connecting it to the previous one. Obviously the true greats manage to break all these rules!
I like the Sony F65 at the moment – the images are staggeringly high quality; the mechanical shutter helps a lot and personally I usually prefer working with a slightly bigger camera as it lends itself to more considered filmmaking. The camera choice obviously has an effect on post production workflows, but I’ve found there’s often a lot of hearsay in place of experience. Testing a proposed camera and workflow is crucial for a happy shoot and edit. The Red Epic, for example, has a lot going for it on paper but in practise my camera team and I have found it fiddly and relatively unreliable on set. Others love it to bits. We’re spoilt for choice, fortunately.
Doctor Who, Being Human, Ashes to Ashes, Life on Mars, Bedlam, Cold Feet
As far as hierarchy goes, the director is the most important person on set. The DP has ultimate responsibility for ensuring the director’s vision is translated into an effective image on screen, so tends to be held to account the most on set as he or she has to deliver the goods on schedule. Some DPs are much more technical than others. I wouldn’t consider myself very technical and will always bow to the greater experience of the focus puller and grip when dealing with complex pieces of camera equipment. Less is more when it comes to lighting. The simpler you can light, the better. Time is the most precious commodity and if you can make one lamp do the job of three you have saved half an hour.
DPs have to be able to light a set and a face very well in any conceivable situation, compose a frame properly and shoot quickly.
The Digital Revolution
The first 15 years of my career were spent on film, for which I am very grateful. However, I love digital. It’s very intuitive, extremely quick, looks great and there are no problems with hairs in the gate, damaged rushes or film run outs on short magazines. There will always be a demand for film but not really in television any more and for feature film production I think it will become (if it hasn’t already) a niché. My favourite camera right now is the Arri Alexa, but they are all good. I like the Alexa because it’s well designed and is the first digital camera to make me feel like I’ve stepped back into my favourite pair of old slippers. There’s not a great deal of difference in cost between cameras so it comes down to size and ergonomics.
The Career Path
The traditional path to becoming a DP is through the camera department: trainee, clapper loader, focus puller, camera operator, DP, but those lines have been blurred over the last 30 years with the advent of film schools and high quality digital cameras. Most people can now purchase a broadcast standard camera for relatively little money and deliver a great looking image without needing a great deal of technical knowhow. However, time spent working one’s way up through the ranks teaches a person how to work with a crew and deal with production, which are invaluable skills when it comes to becoming a successful DP. I started in cameras as a trainee then clapper loader but then went to film school and came out three years later as a fully fledged DP, so in a way I had the best of both worlds. Having said that, I often think my ‘range’ might well be greater had I spent many more years as an assistant on other people’s films and learning skills from the great DPs. I do miss that.
The Fear, Going Postal, Hogfather, Keeping Mum, St. Trinian’s, The Guilty
To actually call yourself a DP, to persuade a producer to entrust you with a large portion of the budget, the schedule and how good their very expensive actors will look, as well as being technically excellent and consistent, takes time. I spent six years at two film schools and two years in between as a camera trainee and camera assistant before I dared call myself a DP, and even then I was probably chancing it.
The camera department is a difficult one to rise through because all the jobs are so different. A great focus puller won’t necessarily make a great operator or DP. All you can do is watch and learn as much as you can. If you have a great yearning to be a DP, shoot as much of your own material as possible. You need to build some evidence that you can actually do the job, which is where film schools can help.
A DP needs innate compositional skills, a deep understanding of light, shade and colour in all its guises, inquisitiveness and a delight in storytelling through pictures.
This Year’s Model
I’m less and less interested in what I capture the image on, so long as it’s appropriate for the project, and that it’s my choice. My favourite camera is the one that is appropriate and affordable for the job. Things move so quickly now, that if I said what my current favourite was, it would be different by the time this came to press. More and more I’m using multiple camera systems, each to do a particular job within a production. We used four different cameras on The Fear. The best camera manufacturers are the ones that listen to the people who will actually use the camera rather than impose their own (marketing-led) idea of what we should be doing. It still amazes me when someone likes something I’ve done, and then asks what camera I used; would you ask an artist what brushes they paint with?
Film vs. Digital
Digital has opened up a whole new palette that I enjoy exploring, film still possess a beauty and depth that is hard to replicate. Take your pick. People have been telling me since I left film school there would be no demand for film, but it’s still hanging in there. The BBC have finally recanted and are allowing 16mm film back on their HD channel.
I avoid trends at all costs, unless I started one! If you are fashionable, by definition you will go out of fashion pretty quickly, and the look of a project should come from the story you are trying to tell. Imposing a ‘cool’ new look can stand out like a sore thumb and is basically plagiarism. Come up with your own ideas.
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